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Ivory Coast Armed Robbery Could Threaten Plans for Business Center - 2002-08-31

An armed robbery at the West African Central Bank in Abidjan this week is causing renewed concerns about the city's ability to serve as a regional business center.

News of the bank robbery this week shocked even residents of Abidjan - a city notorious for frequent car-jackings and violent home invasion robberies. The robbers, possibly aided by a senior security guard, made off with $3 million. Local newspapers have dubbed the heist "The Robbery of the Century."

Skyrocketing crime, combined with political tensions in recent years, have prompted some multi-national corporations to reduce or close their operations in Abidjan long considered one of the African continent's main commercial hubs.

Jeannette Fisher, an American lawyer who works with foreign firms in the city, says the security situation makes life difficult for individuals. But she says from a business point of view, the more important issue is that it costs money.

"A lot of companies have realized that maybe they have weaker growth margins as a result [of insecurity], because it affects the whole economy. Maybe the weaker growth margins and the same [security] problems, make it difficult to stay. I think for the most part, companies have threatened to leave because they just didn't see where things were going," she said.

Ms. Fisher says that for now at least, most foreign companies she works with are opting to stay in Abidjan, although some have downsized.

Once considered one of the most politically stable countries in West Africa, Ivory Coast was plunged into a period of political and ethnic unrest following its first-ever military coup in 1999.

The government of President Laurent Gbagbo has worked to keep investors and multi-national organizations engaged in the country.

Last year, the African Development Bank, which has been based in Abidjan since 1966, cited security concerns when it sought to move its headquarters to Tunisia. The bank abandoned the plan, however, following negotiations with the Gbagbo government.

The bank robbery on Tuesday took place in broad daylight, when a group of men entered the Abidjan offices of the West African Central Bank a heavily guarded high-rise in the city's bustling Plateau business district. Witnesses say the robbers were riding in a four-by-four vehicle bearing presidential license plates which police say were fake.

Authorities blame the bank's security guards for the robbery. A manhunt is under way for the security guards' supervisor, Prosper Sia, who police consider the prime suspect. Mr. Sia fled the scene Tuesday. Officers at all border crossings have been placed on alert.

Officials say the investigation is advancing, but have given no details.